In The Open Society and its Enemies: The Spell of Plato, written soon after the Second World War, the philosopher Karl Popper famously accused Plato of being "the philosophical champion of the closed society . . . [who] laid the groundwork for totalitarianism." A few decades later, the political theorist Robert Nozick laid out a more general objection to societies founded upon "patterned doctrines"—that is, societies that envisioned the permanent distribution of goods (such as income, prestige, power, etc.) on the basis of pre-determined patterns, whether simple or complex. Nozick argued that no society could maintain its patterns without constantly and consistently violating the liberty of its members, "without continuous interference with people’s lives" (Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia, p. 163).
So towards the end of Jo Walton’s The Philosopher Kings, when Apollo, in the form of the mortal Pytheas, declares that "Plato was laying out an unachievable ideal, to spur people to excellence" (p. 273), it is difficult not to charge him with displaying a most ungodly naïveté. This is especially because his statement comes at the end of a long unraveling of the Platonic blueprint, a disintegration of the pattern in the teeth of intractable human will.
The Philosopher Kings begins twenty years after the end of The Just City (the first book of Walton’s Thessaly series). The Just City is Athena’s attempt at carrying out a controlled Platonic experiment: ten thousand children, collected from various eras of human history, along with a smattering of adult supervisors (also from different times and places, united only by a common desire, expressed consciously or subconsciously, to live in Plato’s Republic), are placed on the island of Thera, a few years before its historical destruction in a volcanic eruption. There, beyond the tides of the world, free from annoying interferences by reality, the supervisors will attempt to recreate Plato’s Republic. Unsurprisingly, things do not go according to plan, especially when Athena brings in Sokrates to tutor the growing children. Sokrates begins to question the very foundations of the "experiment," and in the climactic debate at the end of the book, is turned into a gadfly by an incensed Athena, who herself leaves a city racked with dissension and on the verge of disintegration.
The Philosopher Kings begins with an act of violence—the death of Simmea, one of the foremost philosophers of the Just City, and Pytheas-Apollo’s lover—in an "art raid"; and it is violence that marks all the events that follow. Simmea’s death becomes a reason—or an excuse—for the Just City (or, as it is now known after the great schism following the debate between Athena and Sokrates, the "Remnant City") to send an expedition looking for Kebes, a recalcitrant rebel who fled the city many years ago with a small band of adherents, and who, they believe, might be responsible for this latest outrage. Pytheas-Apollo is on the voyage, as is his daughter by Simmea, Arete, as well as his other children from the Plato-prescribed mating-festivals of the Just City. During the course of the voyage, the children will discover what it means to be the offspring of a god, while Apollo himself will continue his own personal experiments with mortality—sometimes with tragic consequences.
If The Just City was about a heroic—but ultimately doomed—effort to harmonise disparate human wills into a common project in order to achieve Plato’s Republic, then The Philosopher Kings shows us how the project was impossible from the very beginning. In the closing debate of The Just City, Sokrates asks athena whether she created the City just to see the ways in which it could fail. By the time of the events of The Philosopher Kings, the Just City has failed in one very obvious way: by splitting up into five different cities, each with its own interpretation of how to make flesh Plato’s Republic. In Sokratea, they have established complete equality; in Psyche, they deny women a role in public life; in Athenia, they claim to "strictly" follow Plato; and in the city of Amazons, they have set up a "Concordance" that seeks to resolve Plato and the pagan canon with Christianity.
And yet, perhaps that can scarcely be called a failure. Plato’s Republic is, after all, a literary text, and like any literary text, especially one that has been transformed into canon, it must necessarily become the site of contesting interpretations. In that sense, the four cities that emerge out of the schism that follows the last debate between Sokrates and athena bear testament to the vitality of Plato’s Republic in a way that the old philosopher would have been proud of.
In fact, at the end of The Philosopher Kings, it is Athena herself, justifying her project, who merely says that the supervisors that she had plucked out from history "loved our world and their own worlds held too little to fulfill their souls. I wanted to see what they would do with their imagination of our world, and Plato’s vision" (p. 333). This is a startling admission by the goddess—who seemed so hostile to disruption that, towards the end of The Just City, she (literally) transforms Sokrates into a literal gadfly rather than continue to defend her project against his increasingly convincing arguments against it. The strict patterns, the rigid structures, of Plato’s Republic have been replaced by the altogether more benign "vision," an ambiguous word that invites interpretations, almost invites invention in the name of interpretation. Even Athena, it seems, was less interested in carrying out Plato’s project on earth, and more interested in seeing how human beings would try and "do" Plato, Plato according to their own lights. And here we have the answer to Popper’s fears: the Republic cannot become totalitarian merely because Plato has worked it all out in advance. The men and women who implement it will all have their own different ideas about what Plato said, what he meant, and how to best understand him. The crooked timber can never—thankfully—be beaten into shape.
No, the greater failure is that the cities have begun to fight each other over precisely that which Plato took pains to banish from his Republic: art. The contention surrounds the lost artworks from different historical periods that Athena brought to the Just City, and the ownership of which has now become bitterly disputed between the (many) cities. Indeed, it is one such "art raid" that claims Simmea’s life, and sets off the tumultuous, violence-ridden events of The Philosopher Kings, at the base of which is the personal enmity between Pytheas-Apollo and Kebes.
And it is the quest to find Kebes that reveals another kind of Platonic failure: a failure of the imagination. As historians have never tired of pointing out, Greek democracy, Greek public life with its equality and its isonomia, and the Greek life of the mind, could not have existed without slavery. Could Plato’s Republic, with its carefully constructed absence of class conflict (through the Noble Lie and a reduction of classes based purely on vocation), have existed without slavery? With the Just City, Athena short-circuited the problem by providing the City with "Workers" (semi-sentient robots), and a ready supply of electricity with which to make them work. But decades later, as Kebes and his followers set up colonies across the Aegean, with their social structures loosely modeled on the Just City, the absence of Workers means the swift appearance of social classes, of money, of poverty—three things that would have been an anathema in Plato’s Republic.
If Plato had not adequately thought through the economics of his city, he had probably thought even less about the human beings who were to live in it. Some of those tensions had already come to the fore in The Just City, in particular with the inevitable, tangled emotions around the cyclic mating festivals. But there is another, even more staggering assumption at the heart of the Republic: the belief that the ten-year old children who would be brought to it for those rituals would be as "wax tablets that can be wiped clean and written afresh" (p. 147). Pytheas and his crew discover the contrary: that Kebes, who had been brought to the Just City from an era after the birth of Christ, remembers enough of Christianity to repudiate the paganism of the City, and has founded his colonies on strictly Christian principles, along with the accompanying toxicity of heresies and heretics.
Eventually, the inevitable clash between Kebes and Pytheas-Apollo, which reaches a shattering climax after a long and tense build-up, feels not simply a clash between two men, or between paganism and a particularly brutal version of Christianity, but between a belief in the essentially benign nature of the Platonic project and its complete negation—a negation that, nonetheless, fails on its own terms to offer an alternative vision that evades the same patterned traps. The third alternative—the questioning skepticism of Socrates—remains a memory, Sokrates himself having been liquidated by the founder of the Just City.
It is within these layered relationships, between people, and between the ideas that they represent (without their ever being reduced to an idea) that I think we find Walton’s achievement: to leave us in perpetual uneasiness with all the proffered solutions. Plato’s Republic, in the form that he imagined it, can never work; but every attempt to tinker with it, or tweak the design, throws up its own fresh set of problems, which are as complex as the individuals charged with interpreting and implementing that design as they understand it. Perhaps, in her concluding book, Walton will offer closure—its name, Necessity, certainly seems to hint at that!
Gautam Bhatia is based in New Delhi, India. When not at his day job as a lawyer and legal academic, he tries to lay hands on the latest works of historical and speculative fiction—with a particular taste for high fantasy and Orwellian dystopias—and read them from cover to cover. He has reviewed before for the Jadaliyya Magazine, and blogs about books at anenduringromantic.